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Climate Activists Cast Shade On San Diego's Ambitious Tree Planting Efforts

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An ambitious effort to boost the number and size of trees in the city of San Diego faces a difficult timetable.

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Speaker 1: 00:00 An ambitious effort to boost the number and size of trees in the city of San Diego faces a difficult time table. KPBS reporter Eric Anderson says, the city's climate action plan hopes to soften the impact of climate change by tripling the city's tree canopy.

Speaker 2: 00:18 Okay, Phil. Now landscaper Narcissa Gonzalez unwinds the hose attached to a tank in the back of his white pickup truck. He's in this mid city neighborhood to water dozens of young trees planted here three years ago. Okay, I'm a water this Bay. If they're keeping the water, the hose goes into the green bag wrapped around the base of the tree. That bag can be filled in minutes, but it takes hours to drain and allows the fledgling tree a chance to soak up the water before it runs off. It's all those delivered water every week. The first year after trees were planted here

Speaker 3: 00:56 on the thick year, uh, twice a month. And this year is a once a month,

Speaker 2: 01:02 although he does make extra stops during the hottest part of the year. These young trees are part of a Cal fire grant or the city of San Diego. A welcome present for the city's official Forester. Brian Wood. Nah, he's in charge of managing the city's urban forest and he says, more new trees are on the way.

Speaker 3: 01:21 We're planning to, uh, put in about 1100 street trees this calendar year. Um, and then in addition to that, up to 400 additional trees and park locations,

Speaker 2: 01:31 the young trees are an important step toward broadening the urban tree canopy. But wouldn't our says success won't be reached by adding just small new trees. He also wants to see existing trees get bigger,

Speaker 3: 01:44 protect them, maintain them better. Um, we did some analysis of our tree canopy cover back in 2015 so we know what areas of the city might need additional tree planting or additional tree maintenance in order to help.

Speaker 2: 02:01 Let's get to that goal. Would an hour has the daunting task of tripling the city's tree canopy and just over a decade, that's important because trees pull carbon out of the air. They cool the urban landscape and they filter pollution. Trees are also a significant part of the city's plan to reduce the impact of greenhouse gases. And that's why there's a push for more

Speaker 3: 02:24 to get from 13 to 35%. Yes, it's going to be very challenging. Um, I think that we could do it, but again, we have to, um, be able to focus in on the resources that we think are important and able to get to that goal.

Speaker 2: 02:38 So what does a 35% tree canopy look like? Oh, it looks a lot like Balboa park, which has more than 15,000 trees, but not every city neighborhood enjoys that same environmental benefit. So if he for him works with the climate action campaign, she's standing on university in city Heights.

Speaker 4: 03:00 So down this way we're looking toward the I 15, and you can see that there is, um, kind of a smattering of trees here and there. Um, and this is where we have the potential to invest in taking care of our existing canopy, which really needs to be the top priority. It's the fastest way to grow the urban canopy.

Speaker 2: 03:24 The street has one of the city's busiest bus routes and she says it's a prime location for both more young trees and bigger, older ones. She says, using trees to cool this urban heat Island will benefit a community that already faces economic challenges and for him says the clock is ticking.

Speaker 4: 03:45 You've got one year to up the tree canopy by 2% that's a huge beat. And then we have until 2035 to nearly triple the tree canopy or the urban forest in San Diego. So it's going to be a big task.

Speaker 2: 03:58 And she says the only way the city can keep up is to hire extra staff

Speaker 4: 04:03 meeting any of our climate action plan targets is going to be a question of political will. We know that we have a roadmap, we have a way to get there, but we need to invest in staff resources and need to make all of these strategies a priority. We can get there. We just have to say we're going to do it and we have to consistently invest

Speaker 2: 04:21 well for him. Says San Diego hasn't made that commitment yet and she is sure those aggressive climate goals will be unattainable without it. Eric [inaudible],

Speaker 5: 04:30 Harrison KPBS news.

Speaker 1: 04:33 Joining me is KPBS environment reporter Eric Anderson. Eric, welcome. My pleasure. What kinds of trees is the city planning?

Speaker 5: 04:41 Well, the city's planning a number of different trees. Uh, it might even be easier to say what kind of trees aren't they planting, right? They're not planting any more eucalyptus trees. Uh, we know that those trees have issues when it comes to windy conditions or stormy conditions. Uh, and they're not, uh, focusing on planting any more Palm trees either because they don't provide the benefit that the city is looking for. It's that shade benefit. It's that broad canopy, uh, that contains all those environmental, uh, pluses that they're looking for.

Speaker 1: 05:11 So let's talk about Palm trees for a minute because even though they're not planting any, we still have quite a few of them. And an assessment was made in the last few years that found that Southern California is Palm trees are not doing too well, are a lot of them are dying because of bug infestations and fungus. Is there going to be an effort to try to take care of these trees that we do have?

Speaker 5: 05:32 Well, it is in the sense that that what they want is existing trees to be bigger. Um, that will grow the canopy, right? There are two ways. You get a bigger canopy. You, you plant more trees and you make the existing trees that you have, uh, bigger. So yes, uh, you want to make sure that, uh, bugs and beetles aren't destroying the existing trees that are out there, that, that create the canopy that the city currently has. Um, and so you want to address that at some point. But again, the focus is on, um, trying to grow that canopy, uh, in those two ways, which is planting new trees, um, which if you drive around the city, you've probably seen these curbside, uh, trees, young saplings that have these green bags around the base of them. You've probably seen those in a number of different neighborhoods around the city where the city is trying to increase the number of trees. And then it's also trying to take care of the trees that exist, make them larger, right? So if you have a, an old growth tree that's, uh, 60 feet around and you can make it 80 feet around that, that increases the canopy.

Speaker 1: 06:35 Now remind us about what kind of climate benefits the city expects will result from more trees?

Speaker 5: 06:42 Sure. There are a number of things that trees do. Uh, one of the obvious ones is they provide shade, right? It reduces the heat in the urban environment. If you reduce the heat in the urban environment, if you have a lot of trees, a planet close to buildings, you might be able to lower your, uh, costs for, for keeping those buildings cool. Because they're not as hot as they otherwise would have been. Uh, trees are great filters. They pull pollution out of the air pollution from cars that are, that are going by, uh, they pull that pollution out of the air, uh, and they kind of sequester it there. They also are great carbon sinks, right? This is, uh, uh, important for, uh, the greenhouse gas effect because they pull in carbon dioxide and they keep that carbon and they release oxygen. And so it's a way to, to get some of that dangerous carbon, which heats up our climate out of the atmosphere where it's doing the damage.

Speaker 1: 07:35 And how does the city select the areas where they plant these new trees?

Speaker 5: 07:39 I think they're really open to where they plant them as long as they have the right of way to plant them, right. They can't plant trees, uh, wherever they want to. There are private property rules. They can't just put a tree in somebody's yard, front or back. Uh, they have to find a place. So usually that's a place, uh, between a sidewalk and a street. There's, there might be a narrow median strip there. Sometimes the median strip is in the middle of the roads and sometimes the areas where they plant trees are in parks, which they control or on school properties, which are public property, which they have a measure of control over. So once they find where they can put these trees, uh, then they go ahead and do it there.

Speaker 1: 08:19 And is it the city's obligation to maintain these trees as they grow and so forth? Or suppose they plant near a business is that therefore the business owner's responsibility?

Speaker 5: 08:31 What they do is they commit to watering the tree early in its life. For the first two, three, four years, uh, to make sure that that kind of grabs hold and then kind of takes off. And it's, I sense it's a shared responsibility there. There are some people that, you know, don't actually want trees planted near their properties. Right? Uh, they're worried about tree roots that might get into their plumbing and mess things up and they would rather not have those trees there. And, and you know, the city tries to work with property owners that have those concerns. But what the city is looking for is like, look, and there is a free tree program that the city runs we can talk about in a second, but what they're saying is, look, we'll plant the trees, we'll get them established and then, you know, we kind of want them to grow on their own trees.

Speaker 5: 09:15 Uh, don't require a huge amount of maintenance once they're in the ground and established, uh, you know, they have a big root system that can draw water and they can, they can feed themselves and grow as they, as they normally would. What is the free tree program? Right? So the city of San Diego has a free tree program where if you're a homeowner and you have one of those median strips near nearest street where you could plant a tree, they ask you to reach out to the city. Um, there's a website where you can go to ask the city to come plant a tree for you. Um, you agree to water it for three years, and then there's no charge to the homeowner who, who gets that tree. Uh, the city's also in the process of working on, uh, a program that basically expands that to where the city will give you a tree that you can plant, say in your backyard or in a different place in your front yard as long as you make the commitment to watering it for three years so that it can become established. Uh, they will give you that tree for free. So they're doing some things to kind of encourage, uh, private property owners to, to take advantage of the land that they have available to, to plant trees. I've been speaking with KPBS environment reporter Eric Anderson. Eric, thank you. You're welcome. Thank you.

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.